Imagine going on an exotic adventure to the other side of the world, only to end up the ruler of your very own country. As farfetched as it may sound, that’s exactly what happened to a man named James Brooke, the first of the White Rajahs. He set sail for Borneo, the world’s third largest island, mainly in search of adventure. But after an action-packed series of events, people would end up calling him king.
Today, Sarawak is just one province of Malaysia, a country not formed until 1963. But up until the end of World War II, Sarawak functioned as an independent nation under the governance of James Brooke and his descendants.
Today, the Brooke family legacy can still be seen and experienced in Sarawak’s capital of Kuching. Most people visit the area to see orangutans and hike through the pristine national parks nearby. But during your stay in the city itself, don’t miss the opportunity to learn more about the history of the White Rajahs, arguably one of the most captivating tales from recent Asian history.
The Birth of the Brooke Dynasty
James Brooke was born in 1803 in British India, in present West Bengal Province. He was a British soldier there, but was wounded in a war against Burma in 1824. He was sent home early for rest and recuperation, but never stopped thinking about his time in the East.
For years, he couldn’t get the idea of having some kind of grand adventure in the Orient out of his mind. As luck would have it, he inherited £30,000 in 1833, which he used to invest in a 142-ton schooner called the Royalist. With a trained crew, he set sail for the Far East, ending up on the island of Borneo.
But what, exactly, did Brooke hope to accomplish? The purpose of the trip was multifold. Part of it was scientific and educational, as Brooke had support from the Royal Geographical Society. But mainly, it seems, Brooke was driven by an internal call for adventure. “Could I plant my foot where white man’s foot never before had been … I should be content without looking for further reward,” he once wrote.
Brooke’s timing was serendipitous. Arriving on the coast of Sarawak in 1838, he learned of an internal rebellion taking place against the ruler of the land – the Sultan of Brunei. Formed in 1476, Brunei became a major maritime power in the following centuries, and controlled much of the island by the time Brooke arrived in the 1800’s. But if Brooke and his men could help stop the rebellion, the Sultan’s uncle Raja Muda Hassim promised him the role of Sarawak’s governor.
Thanks to Brooke’s military experience and modern weaponry, he was able to quash the revolt. As a result, in 1841, Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien II granted James Brooke complete control over Sarawak. After Brooke helped Brunei put down yet another rebellion, Sarawak officially ceded from Brunei and became a new sovereign nation, over which Brooke ruled as king, or Rajah. Thus began the dynasty of the ‘White Rajahs’ which would last for just over 100 years.
During your visit to Kuching, the best place to acquaint yourself with the fascinating legacy of the White Rajas is Fort Margherita. The fort was built in 1879, during the reign of Rajah James’ nephew Charles. Today, the defensive fort, which was also once a jail, is home to the Brooke Gallery.
Spread across three floors, the Brooke Gallery is a comprehensive museum dedicated to the reign of the White Rajas and Sarawak’s history in general. You’ll find detailed descriptions of the events leading up to Jame Brooke’s ascent to the throne and how Sarawak transformed (or stayed the same) under his rule. Finally, the museum also details how the Brooke dynasty ultimately met its end, a topic we’ll cover further down below.
It was during James Brooke’s reign that influential British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace carried out his expedition to Borneo, during which he penned his famous “Sarawak Law” paper. Wallace and Brooke got to know each other well during this time. Brooke helped provide a thatched hut on the Santubong peninsula for Wallace to work and write in.
GETTING THERE: Fort Margherita is on the opposite side of the river from the main part of town. The best way to get to the museum is to hop on a river boat that takes you across for just 1 ringgit.
You can also cross the river via the Darul Hana Bridge. Though it’s quite a trek to walk to the fort from the bridge, the bridge brings you right up to other notable landmarks, like the Astana and the New Sarawak State Legislative Assembly Building
While you’re still on the north bank, you should also walk by the Astana. The Astana was built as a royal residence in 1870 by Charles Brooke as a place to live together with his newlywed wife. Unfortunately, as the building now functions as the residence of the current Sarawak governor, it’s normally off limits to visitors. You can, at least, get a nice view of it from the outside, especially from the Darul Hana bridge.
The Brookes and the Dayaks
When James Brooke came to power in 1841, he was tasked with ruling over one of the most culturally diverse parts of Asia. Sarawak consisted of (and still consists today of) ethnic Malays, descendants of Chinese traders and the indigenous Dayak tribes. Among the Dayak are the Iban, Bidayuh and many other groups which have maintained their own distinct cultures and languages for centuries. Brooke’s major task, then, was to efficiently rule Sarawak while somehow keeping everybody happy.
In contrast to typical colonial powers of the era, Brooke and his descendants are widely credited with respecting the local traditions and customs of the natives. Brooke went out of his way to become friendly with local leaders of the Malay, Bidayuh and Iban, thus earning the trust of many of Sarawak’s inhabitants.
Brooke also made a big deal out of upholding the ‘adat law,’ or the tribal codes adhered to by the indigenous tribes. In fact, he went so far as codifying them into state law, administering punishments and fines for those Dayak who failed to abide by their ancient tribal customs.
But what exactly is adat law? While varying from tribe to tribe, adat laws typically determined things like land usage, marriage and divorce, construction projects and the carrying out of certain rites and rituals. As the goal of these rules was to maintain harmony both among the community as well as with the spirit realm, they were taken very seriously. One major aspect of adat law that Brooke did go about changing, however, was the practice of headhunting.
Headhunting in Borneo
In traditional Dayak culture, obtaining the head of an enemy was vital to the local mourning rituals. In some tribes, families could only properly mourn for their dead as long as one of their men captured the head of another person in battle. Upon return, they’d present it to the local tribe leader.
According to ancient custom, warriors would take a small sip of blood from an enemy’s head shortly after chopping it off. Returning back to the village with it, they’d boil it in water until the skin peeled off, and they also dumped out the brains. Then, the skulls were used as offerings for their own family members to aid their spirits in the afterlife.
As is common in many animistic traditions around the world, ancestor tradition has long been of utmost important in Borneo. But unlike elsewhere, the various Dayak tribes required human heads to ‘properly’ mourn their dead. One reason Brooke put an end to the practice is that in some parts of the island, groups of bandits were attacking others in peacetime simply to obtain heads for their rituals.
Even with all other adat traditions codified into state law, the illegality of headhunting greatly disrupted Dayak life at first. But one solution came in the form of special government skull repositories! Skulls would be marked with numbers. They’d be lent out to local tribes who’d then return them once the mourning was over. Visiting traditional longhouses today, you can still see a local tribes’ old collection of skulls place prominently on display.
Other gripes against the Brooke government included his restrictions of tribal movements throughout Sarawak. As tribes like the Iban were traditionally semi-nomadic, this greatly disrupted their lifestyle. Brooke was also known to deal harshly with his enemies, putting to death those Dayaks who rebelled. And the biggest scandal to happen during his reign was a series of accusation that he went way too far with accusing people of piracy. Nevertheless, he was generally viewed favorably by the Dayak people, who recognized his efforts to preserve their culture.
James Brooke had no children of his own. After retiring to England, his nephew John took the throne for a few years. For reasons not entirely clear, John was disavowed and taken off the throne. James then chose his other nephew, Charles to become the next White Rajah instead. Even today, Charles is generally considered the second king of the Brooke dynasty.
Throughout his reign, he continued the efforts of his uncle to suppress piracy and headhunting. He encouraged his wife, of English descent, to learn Malay so that she could communicate with local women, while he also founded a Malay language boys’ school.
He expanded the local agriculture industry by encouraging farmers from China to settle and grow rice there, and he greatly improved local infrastructure. The rubber and oil industries also started to take off during his reign. Charles is also credited with initiating peace between warring tribes.
Today, visitors can see the Charles Brooke monument, just outside the Old Courthouse. On all four sides are carvings depicting Sarawak’s main ethnic groups: Dayak, Kayan, Malay and Chinese.
Walking around Kuching today, many of the older buildings and monuments you’ll encounter were built during Rajag Charles’ reign (1868-1917). We covered Fort Margherita and the Astana above, but let’s go over other notable landmarks you can find around town.
Charles Brooke opened the Sarawak Museum at the behest of Alfred Russel Wallace. It functions as a museum to this day, and is one of the best places in town to learn about local culture, nature and wildlife. Unfortunately, the main portion was being remodeled during my visit, but the smaller exhibitions remained open to visitors.
Built in 1912, near the end of Charles Brooke’s reign, the Rajah established this courthouse for the growing Chinese community in Sarawak. It was here that things like marriage and divorce could be decided upon by a judge from a similar background. Today, the building is home to the Chinese History Museum which is well worth checking out.
General Post Office
The General Post Office is one of the later structures of the White Rajahs era, not having been built until 1931. It was commissioned by the last White Rajah, Vyner Brooke,
One of the largest buildings in Kuching, it’s recognizable for its multiple archways and Corinthian columns. It’s located right nearby the Old Court House.
The Brookes and their friends founded the Borneo Company to essentially act as a state monopoly over a variety of local industries. Supposedly, the White Rajas saw this as a better alternative to foreign investors coming in and potentially causing harm to local forests or the tribal way of life.
Back in the day, the waterfront would’ve been full of warehouses and lodgings for workers of the company. Today along the waterfront, you can still find the Brooke Dockyard, founded in 1912. It remains a functioning company which focuses on ship repair, engineering works and oil and gas procurement.
The Square Tower
Also situated along the riverfront, the Square Tower was built as a lookout tower next to a prison. The lower level of the tower may have even housed prisoners. Supposedly, the structure would even perform other functions as well, like that of a dance hall. Like Fort Margherita and other structures around town, it features the Brooke Family Crest.
Apparently, visitors used to be able to enter the tower and climb to the top, but it’s now home to a restaurant and is otherwise closed to the public.
The End of the White Rajahs
Independent Sarawak came to an end in 1941, following the invasion of Imperial Japan. The Japanese ruled Borneo until 1945, when they driven out by Australian forces. In 1946, Rajah Vyner came back to power, but only for a single year. In return for a large pension for him and his family, he ceded Sarawak to Britain. Many were unhappy about this, including his nephew and the heir apparent to the throne, Anthony Brooke.
Anthony supported an anti-cession movement, whose goal was to revert Sarawak back to an independent nation under the rule of the White Rajahs. With tensions at their height, a nationalist went as far as stabbing and killing the British governor. Though Anthony had nothing to do with it, he was pressured to renounce his claims to the throne and the end of the movement. In 1963, the Malaysian Declaration was signed, bringing Sarawak under the dominion of a newly formed Malaysia.
Among local residents in Kuching today, perception of the Brooke dynasty era seems to be generally positive – even if very few are old enough to remember it. “I wish the Brooke family still ran things here,” one local told me. “I think we would be better off.” But there are others who feel like this bygone era, one in which Sarawak was ruled by a small group of Europeans, is too often romanticized.
Whatever the case may be, the Brooke name is ubiquitous throughout present-day Kuching. Visitors can grab lunch or a drink at the James Brooke Cafe, while at the time of writing, a ‘White Rajah’ feature film is currently under production. After the filming is complete, a life-size Royalist replica used in the movie may even end up accepting visitors outside the Brooke Dockyard. This is probably a good idea, as tourism to Kuching is bound to increase after more people learn of the alluring tale of the White Rajahs.
As exotic as a trip to Borneo may sound, Kuching is fairly easy to get to. There are plenty of flights between Kuching and Kuala Lumpur, which itself is reachable from all over the region thanks to being the main hub of AirAsia.
There are also direct flights between Kuching and Penang and Kota Kinabalu. Internationally, you can also fly between Kuching and Singapore as well as Pontianak, Indonesia.
Coming by bus, Kuching Sentral Terminal is very well connected to the rest of Sarawak.
One of the great things about Kuching is its size. If you’re staying in a relatively central part of the city, you can pretty much get everywhere on foot. As mentioned above, you can take a boat for just 1 ringgit to get across the other side of the river, but there’s also a free pedestrian bridge.
If you’re in a hurry or need to get somewhere a little farther out of town like the central bus station, just download the ridesharing app called Grab. (Uber no longer exists in Southeast Asia, as Grab recently bought them out.)
Considering the city’s size, location isn’t incredibly important, as you’ll still be able to get most places on foot. Basically, aim for anywhere in between the Kuching City Mosque and the Cat Statue.
One popular place to stay is the Riverside Majestic Hotel, which is right across the street from the bus stop that takes you to Bako National Park. Otherwise, there are all sorts of options in Kuching, from luxury hotels to budget youth hostels.